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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand celebrates king's coronation

Political coalition talks to resume after 3 days of ceremonies

Officials salute as the car carrying King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida drives past the Grand Palace during his coronation in Bangkok on May 4.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand commenced a three-day coronation ceremony on Saturday for King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun's formal accession to the throne.

The 66-year-old king was formally crowned on Saturday during a mix of Buddhist religious ceremonies and Hindu Brahmin rituals. The king issued his first royal command after being crowned: "I shall reign in righteousness for the benefits of the kingdom and the people forever," he said.

On Sunday, the king will be carried around Bangkok on a royal palanquin, after conferring ranks to members of the royal family.

The king is expected to appear on the balcony of the royal palace on Monday to greet Thais. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will be positioned in the main area beneath the balcony with representatives from the army, navy, and air force, leading the crowd in paying their respects and expressing their best wishes to the king. Later on, overseas diplomats will also greet the newly crowned king.

King Vajiralongkorn, also known by the title of King Rama X, became constitutional monarch after the death of his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016. King Bhumibol's reign lasted for seven decades. The coronation follows a mourning period for King Bhumibol, whose funeral was held a year after his death.

The junta secured a 1-billion-baht budget ($31 million) for King Vajiralongkorn's three-day ceremonies, roughly one-third the cost of his father's funeral.

King Vajiralongkorn made a suprise announcement on Wednesday that he "legally married" royal consort Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya and gave her the title of Queen Suthida. She was a flight attendant for Thai Airways International, and was appointed deputy commander of the king's bodyguard unit in 2014. He promoted her to become an army general in 2016. She has been seen with him for many years, but their relationship was never officially acknowledged.

Thai people raise pictures of King Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok on May 4. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

The royalty is well respected among Thais and regarded as the spiritual protector of its people and culture. Many Thais on the streets of Bangkok have been wearing yellow, a color associated with the monarch and his late father, having been advised to do so to show support for the new king from April until late July.

Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Although King Vajiralongkorn said royalty must not become involved in politics, his commands and actions have had lasting impact on the nation's political scene.

On March 23, the day before general elections, the king issued a royal command urging Thais to support "good" leaders to prevent "chaos." On March 30, King Vajiralongkorn recalled royal decorations bestowed on former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, citing his corruption conviction and "highly inappropriate" flight from the country.

The king's moves came as Pheu Thai, a political party linked to Thaksin, jostled with pro-junta Palang Pracharat to form a coalition to become the next government after initial election results showed a mixed outcome.

Such commands by the king were read as veiled criticism of Thaksin and that any party related to him and his family did not have the tacit royal approval. King Vajiralongkorn also stopped his elder sister Princess Ubolratana from running as a sole prime ministerial candidate for another Thaksin-linked party Thai Raksa Chart in early February. The Thai Raksa Chart party was ordered to disband by the Constitutional Court after nominating the princess.

The king released a royal decree on Jan. 1 for the coronation to be held May 4-6. Those dates coincided with the junta's original timetable to hold the election on Feb. 24, as it was understood that the king wanted the coronation to be conducted in an orderly manner by the current government.

Because the election results must be endorsed by the Election Commission within two months after the poll and the first National Assembly must be held within 15 days of the result announcement, the original date proposed by the junta meant that the coronation might have been held under a different administration. 

The decree forced the junta to push back the election date until March 24, so that the coronation could be held in the period before the official result endorsement by the Election Commission, which is due by May 9.

The king's wish, at least on the surface, has forced parties from actively engaging in political maneuvering during the time of coronation and its preparation beforehand. Coalition talks are likely to heat up again after the ceremony, since the election authority will reveal official results soon after.

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